Four years ago, three West African sisters created one of the continent’s most popular webseries—without the help of a big studio.
Jemima, Jesimiel, and Jeiel Damina, three Nigerian sisters, founded their film production company, Neptune3 Studios, in an effort to broaden the entertainment industry’s depiction of what it means to be a young Nigerian. Their work largely captures the realities of this audience. Their episodes follow their challenges with academics, managing adolescent relationships, and keeping up with family.
“Looking at the Nigerian film industry, it was kinda hard to relate to what was on TV then because it wasn’t really relatable for young people,” Jemima says. She began creating films at a young age, using her camcorder to record videos with her sisters.
They have since amassed 1 million subscribers and over 120 million views on YouTube. With their unique skills and abilities, the trio now each contribute in different ways to the growth of their company. Jemima is the director and producer, Jesimiel is the screenwriter, and Jeiel is the lead actor. The sisters share an undeniable bond and have always done everything together.
“Even though we’ve learned in school, we pretty much still learn from one another at this point. If we need a critic, we’re always going to one another. It’s an interesting dynamic right now because we’re very much involved in one another’s roles,” Jesimiel tells Passionfruit.
Jemima, the eldest, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in filmmaking and entertainment business, respectively. Jesimiel, the middle sister, also holds a bachelor’s and master’s in scriptwriting and screenwriting, respectively. Jeiel, the youngest, is following in her sisters’ footsteps and is currently studying creative writing. All three siblings studied at Full Sail University in Florida.
When Jemima and Jesimiel finished their studies and returned home, they were unable to find decent jobs. Growing up in the small city of Uyo, far away from the film and entertainment hub in Lagos, it was difficult to have a break into the industry.
“We started thinking of ways to get involved in the film industry which was hard to do because of our location,” Jemima says. “Back then, I had sent emails to film studios in Lagos but didn’t get a reply which was heartbreaking. I was waiting for this big Lagos break when my mom said, ‘Why don’t you do your own stuff?,’ adding that we went to a school that basically taught us how to make films.”
Taking their mother’s advice, they started making films that young people would love. Their debut film, The New Girl, aired on July 14, 2018. The movie received so much praise and attention that it became the foundation for their webseries Best Friends in the World and serves as its first episode.
“How this show started out as a short film and spiraled into something big should be studied,” someone commented under one of their YouTube uploads. Their webseries has audiences across Nigeria, Africa, and beyond. The series, which is currently in the middle of its second season, wrapped up its first season after a year and seven months with 24 episodes and an original soundtrack album. The rate at which they’ve grown is impressive, since it’s all organic. Jesimiel said the lockdown sparked a growing interest and obsession from fans.
Best Friends in the World is a classic teen drama seen through the eyes of clever Olive. Friendship, family, first loves, rivalries, dread of the future, and other issues that plague secondary school halls are presented in this webseries. The show avoids sexualization, violence, and vulgar language in order to depict a tamer image of adolescence and focus on other themes of identity and self-expression.
Jesimiel, who gets ideas for her stories from the teenagers she encounters both on and off the set, admits that growing up with Disney Channel gave her a bit of an advantage when it came to writing a teen show.
“One thing that Disney channel taught me was how teenagers are presented on screen,” she says. “Although we’re not white teenagers, there’s still that shared experience. It subconsciously tuned me to start taking note of those characteristics that would look great on screen. Initially, I didn’t even know it was a thing but after going through professional training I was like, ‘Oh so this is screen-worthy,’ and then I’ll take one experience and merge it with another to make a story. Then when I met the actors they became the inspiration. They were real-time teenagers and I was able to draw from their experience. Sometimes I sit with the campers and ask them what their secondary school experience was like.”
Over 200 people have been cast to play various roles in the film by the sisters. They mentioned how difficult it has been to work around the actors’ availability.
“Working with inexperienced actors is going to be an uphill task. Many of them have their first experience with a real production with us. You could plan a whole day and end up doing nothing because an actor dipped or even had to recast a role because someone ghosted,” Jesimiel shares.
The sisters’ lives have undergone a significant change since the start of their company. Before founding Neptune3 Studios, they had considered working in the entertainment sector, but they had no specific plans about how they would approach it.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to accept change,” Jeiel, who plays Olive, says. Prior to the show, she hadn’t acted before and had other plans for what she wanted to do. She says, “Acting in this movie was like a different direction for me.”
The women are succeeding despite the difficulties that come with using their production company to pursue their passions. Although they bear the cost of production independently and their pockets frequently suffer, their parents have been supportive and have helped with certain financial needs.
“Our parents are the reason we’ve not deleted our channel. They’re everything when it comes to this production. They’re the reason it has come this far and it looks this good,” they said.
The sisters struggle with burnout, especially since their series’ popularity grew more quickly than they anticipated. To unwind and de-stress, they take vacations and breaks between production (although sometimes they take their work with them).
“I do both the cinematography and the editing,” Jemima says. “It’s really heavy because apart from handling equipment, directing the actors, I have to also mentally visualize the film. It’s been hard to juggle all three with editing as well. Because after standing all day, I have to come back and sit to edit. There’s little to no sleep. What keeps us going most of the time is that we’re doing what we love to do.”
Jeiel says that support from the fans keeps the work exciting and keeps the group motivated.
“People in places and countries outside of Nigeria and Africa recognize me on the road. People are obsessed with our show and dedicated. It’s so good to see,” Jeiel says. “The work, as much as it is rewarding, it’s also very tasking and exhausting. And the money too, our wallets are screaming but it’s all worth it.”
In the coming months while they finish their current project, the sisters plan to take a break from the series format.
“We adore Best Friends In The World and are proud of the work we did for people who started out with little experience,” Jesimiel says. “We have some projects in the works for this year but nothing is certain though. Next year we’ll be making single films. We are aiming for something bigger because with every production we want to be better.”